Talking with Johnny Heller
In June 2019, Johnny was inducted as a Golden Voice, AudioFile's lifetime achievement honor for audiobook narrators.�
Have you ever done anything outrageous to get into character for an audiobook?
I don’t know about outrageous--most things I do lean toward the bizarre in general, so it’s hard to say what would be more outrageous than another thing. One odd thing that comes to mind--narrators always want to get books that are series, because that way you get to do a bunch. Michael Buckley wrote a book for young adults called N.E.R.D.S--the National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society. And I was not told that there were going to be a bunch of books. So the first book were five kids who have “weaknesses” that are turned into strengths that help them defeat evil criminals. A kid with braces, the braces become weaponized. A little tiny kid becomes really mighty and strong. And Essential Listening from Johnny Heller one kid has bad asthma, and his inhalers become like rocket packs so that he can fly around. So the first story was all of them, but then I didn’t know there was going to be a story about each one, and each kid was going to be the hero, and my asthma kid had really bad asthma. When I had to recreate his character, I had to hyperventilate to make it happen, and at least three times recording, I passed out. I was wheezing too much because I’d made that the character choice. So there’s a lesson for you--if you’re going to make a character choice, make sure it’s something that’s not going to make you pass out.
Tell us about any interactions with authors.
Generally it’s a great thing. I like interactions with the author like: “Hey, I’m doing your book,” and they say, “That’s great, I’m looking forward to it,” and then after, they say, “That was great, let’s go have a drink.” I’m not really keen on anyone saying, “Look, do it this way,” because I think they have their art and we have ours. Troy Soos does the Mickey Rawlings Baseball Mystery series, and he and I hit it off pretty well and got to know each other a little bit. He wrote a character in one of his books named Johnny Heller! I was an umpire who threw Babe Ruth out of a game. Dan Gutman, Terry Trueman, Tod Goldberg--because of social media, it’s much easier to get in touch with these guys and be friendly with them. Chris Moore I consider a friend now. It’s always good to get to know the authors, because you get a better feel for what they’re hoping you’ll do with their work. I try and let every author know that I’m doing their stuff and I’m looking forward to it, and I hope they respond positively. I’ve gotten notes that said, “Hey, I was really concerned about how they would do my book, I really appreciate what you did with it,” and I think that’s very rewarding.
What’s your favorite genre to narrate?
My favorite stuff is the private eye thriller kind of thing. I’ve just always liked that. My voice seems to lend itself that way. I did NOIR by Christopher Moore, and that was perfect for me. I just like that style, the Bogart kind of guy. And I dig history a lot, but if I had to pick one, I’d pick noir and then history and probably anything that’s got a smart-ass as the hero, something funny--allegedly funny, at least.
AudioFile Interview, October 2009—Johnny Heller’s energy and his youthful, boyish voice bring an immediacy to the many children’s and young adult titles he narrates. Having a well-developed sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either! He’s a pesky little sister in M IS FOR MAMA'S BOY, a charming Satchel Paige stepping out of history in SATCH & ME, and a snarky, intruding narrator talking directly to young listeners in A TALE DARK & GRIMM--and his audiobook performances engage kids every time. Narrator Johnny Heller doesn't write the jokes he tells in audiobooks like PLATO AND PLATYPUS WALK INTO A BAR, but he knows how to tell a joke. "I'm not sure that can be taught or learned. It simply exists in some people and not others." - 2011 Best Voice in CHILDREN & FAMILY LISTENING
Heller was a starving artist in Chicago, working as a bartender and waiter to support his stage and stand-up-comedy ambitions, when he auditioned and landed his first voice-over acting job, performing in a Campbell's soup commercial. His line: "Mmmm-ummm!" He's still amazed that he makes a living with his voice.
I love the immediacy of a live audience, " Heller says. Performing audiobooks, he adds, is similar because there's rarely time for multiple takes. He has over 200 titles to his credit, most falling into the categories of humor, young adult titles such as THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER , and children's literature such as the Horrible Harry series.
"I tend to speak fairly quickly, but for audiobooks I try to slow down so I can be heard--also, because I get paid by the recorded hour. For a long time, my checks were probably half of what they should have been because I didn't know what I was doing! Now, I can take my time," he laughs--"which is better for the listener and better for the old bank account."
Heller says there are certain decisions an actor makes when creating a character that are more inspired than instructed. "You're probably not going to be far off the mark in the choices you make as an actor. That's the reason they hired you for the job. For example, they know I can do comedy."
Heller believes the narrator needs to come into every project well prepared. "Mostly it's just allowing things to happen--not pushing so much. It's a different school of acting. You need to read the book, know the characters, and be a conduit for what the author wants to say and the listener needs to hear."
Summing up, Heller says playing all the parts and creating the voices are his greatest challenge. "I guess it's like a solo performance in a play. The funny thing is--I don't particularly like that kind of play!"--Randy O'Brien
2008 Best Voice in Children & Family Listening: DRACULA VS. GRAMPA AT THE MONSTER TRUCK SPECTACULAR by Kirk Scroggs.
Actor Johnny Heller has more than 200 audiobooks to his credit. Listeners delight in his energy and his youthful voice, which bring an immediacy to the many children’s and young adult titles. Our reviewers have called him “utterly persuasive” in these varied roles. His delivery of spirited characterizations defines the science fiction novel THE VOICES OF HEAVEN .--[DEC 1998/JAN 1999].
Johnny's Recent News
Charlotte's Web Audie Award 2020 Middle Grade
Spin: The Rumplestiltskin Musical Audie Award 2019
Katrina: After the Flood AudioFile Best of 2016 Biography & History
Monologue: What Makes America Laugh Before Bed AudioFile Best of 2015 Humor
The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears AudioFile Best of 2014 Contemporary Culture
M Is for Mama’s Boy: The N.E.R.D.S. Series, Book 2 AudioFile Best of 2011 Children
Satch & Me AudioFile Best of 2011 Children
A Tale Dark & Grimm AudioFile Best of 2011 Children
Closing Time AudioFile Best of 2009 Biography & Memoir
You: Staying Young, The Owner's Manual for Extending Your Warranty Audie Award 2009
Dracula vs. Grampa at the Monster Truck Spectacular AudioFile Best of 2008 Children
No More Nasty AudioFile Best of 2005 Children
Al Capone Does My Shirts AudioFile Best of 2005 Children
The Happiest Toddler on the Block Audie Award 2005
Photo by Jo Anna Perrin
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